Penny, a story of counterconditioning

Part One

So, in late May I was at the shelter, and the Behavior Services manager asked me if I would like to have a “project dog”.  That’s how I met Penny.

She is a 3-year-old, 50 lb mixed breed with a short brindle coat, natural ears and a docked tail.  It turns out that her tail had been docked at the shelter because she was habitually attacking it whenever she had certain stimuli – such as every single meal – and had seriously injured it.

Aside from the compulsive self-harming whenever she was eating or overly excited, Penny showed signs of extreme anxiety.  Her kennel was in a quiet area of the shelter that was closed off to visitors.  Whenever she was taken outside, she would immediately head for the door to relieve herself and then continually try to lead her handler back inside to the safety of her kennel.  She refused to use any door other than the one nearest to her kennel and she would refuse to use any part of the shelter interior beyond the minimum distance between her run and that door.  On the plus side, she was friendly to every person on staff and gave exuberant greetings to her human friends – sometimes so exuberant that it was difficult to handle her – leading to her harness being kept on her at all times.  In her current state, she was a sweet and friendly dog who was completely unadoptable.

She had been held by other shelters and fosters prior to arriving at ours.  And the somewhat sketchy history that came along with her indicated that these were long-standing behavior problems – particularly her tendency to attack and injure her tail.  At this point, she had been in the shelter for almost two months, between her initial quarantine, her surgery and recovery, there hadn’t been much work done on addressing her behavior problems.   After getting the initial run-down of her (many) issues, I worked out a set of priorities with our behavior staff.

  • First:  We needed to reduce the anxiety she had being outdoors.
  • Second:  We needed her to be able to use doors and interior spaces outside the “safe space” of her kennel.
  • Third:  We needed to reduce her tendency to attack her own body parts – even with her tail docked, she was still showing a tendency to snap at her own flank and hip when food was present or she was overly stimulated.
  • Fourth:  We needed to help her control her overly-excited greetings, particularly with new people.

So…I got to work.

First things first:  Getting her to at least tolerate being outdoors.

I took her out of her run as quietly and matter-of-factly as possible.  I found that the usual method of quieting a jumping dog (negative reinforcement – removing the response to jumping, turning my back and standing still) worked very well.  I then stayed to one side of her while attaching the leash to her martingale collar and easy-walk harness.

I then took her outside by her usual route.  She was in a hurry to “do her business” and then wanted to return to her indoors kennel.  By changing direction a few times, I was able to get her to walk at oblique angles to her initial route back to her safe place, and get her to spend some time outside.  I noticed that when she was actively sniffing a new scent, she relaxed.  Her ears went back, her tail went up, her back relaxed, and she forgot to be afraid.   I could work with that.  I found a bench in a shady spot and sat with her for a while, not interacting with her unless she solicited any touching or petting, and just let her experience the day.  She never really relaxed on that first day, but she didn’t try to escape or go back inside until I brought her back indoors.

For the next two weeks, I took her outside and made a point of walking her on the shelter grounds in areas that other dogs frequented and along the tree lines where rabbits and other local wildlife were common.  Basically, anywhere that was a scent-rich environment.  This was a positive experience for her; and within those two-weeks she completely lost her anxiety about being outdoors and enjoyed experiencing the entire area that our shelter encompasses, several acres of open land.

I then took her to our outdoor exercise area, which is a large open grassy area inside a six-foot fence.  The first time I unclipped her leash inside it, she immediately ran to the gate and started leaping at it, trying to escape.  I leashed her back up and walked her around the inside perimeter of the exercise pen, letting her stop and sniff whenever she wanted, before taking her back outside for some quiet time.  After that, I made a point of taking her to the exercise area immediately after some other dogs had been there, creating a scent-rich environment.  Over the next week, she became interested in investigating the scents and was able to enjoy being there and relaxing off-leash.

Step One done. After three weeks, she was no longer anxious about being outdoors, and was associating outdoor time with interesting nose work and relaxation.  And we had made progress made on Step Four.   This was going so easily, I was feeling pretty optimistic.

To be continued.

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